Archive | November, 2012

Awesome Modern Physics for High School? Yay or Nay?

19 Nov

After the US election, MinutePhysics posted an “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education” on YouTube.

The video triggered lots of discussions on YouTube and Facebook. Physics World, one of my favourite science magazines, posted a poll question on their Facebook page asking whether 16-18 year olds should be taught modern physics. The MinutePhysics video then pointed to another video by Sixty Symbols on the “Problems with High School Physics” in UK.

These two videos reminded me of similar challenges professors in my dept encounter everyday teaching first year university students (I’m in Canada, by the way):

  1. Lack of understanding of basic math concepts or techniques required to comprehend physics (for example,some first year students don’t know how to convert cubic centimetres into cubic metres)
  2. Knowing the over-simplified version of physics or science in general (for example, electrons are not exactly round balls going around the nucleus in a 2-dimensional plane)
  3. Not knowing the connection between physics and everyday life. By the way, some attempts by textbooks have been, well, interesting (see this textbook question about a “hamster” sliding down a slope, and this YouTube video about a textbook problem that, if a student were to test it in real life,  the student might potentially drown). What about physics and climate change, medical imaging, and modern electronics (like the smart phone in your hand)?

While I am all for introducing more concepts and ideas from modern physics to high school students, we will need to keep in mind that high school students do only have two years, and there are many other issues with science curriculum that we need to look at. Trying to stuff more information into high school curriculum without providing the basis in elementary school or junior high, or without providing teachers with appropriate resources and support, will likely make it even more difficult for teachers to help students develop a strong foundation for science before entering university. And whiles talks by Carl SaganRichard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are extremely inspiring, there is a difference between “I think physics is awesome” and “I am capable of comprehending physics and solving everyday problems with physics.”

So a bigger discussion needs to happen – What are the changes that should happen in the k-12 science and physics curriculum? And, equally important, how can we provide an infrastructure to support such changes?

Before that happens (crossing my fingers), here are a few things we all can do now. Encourage students to attend public lectures, participate in science competitions, watch online videos (Sagan, Feynman, or Tyson), register for free online courses (see my post re: options online), or just be inquisitive about what happens around us. Let’s not simply leave the responsibility to each country’s leader – we all have a role to play in advancing the understanding of science in this society.

PS In British Columbia, Canada (where I am), special relativity, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion are part of the Physics 11 curriculum.

PS2 Compared to including modern physics into high school curriculum, I think it is more important to make the current physics curriculum more relevant to our lives. Perhaps I will write about this later on.

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